According to Kenneth Collins in Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, John Wesley made a distinction between two types of faith: the faith of the servant and the faith of the child of God. In the case of the faith of the servant, there are two different types of persons: those who have a faith that exclude justification, which is how Wesley used the term broadly, and those who have a faith that are justified and yet are ignorant of having received forgiveness, which Wesley seldom uses in only specific instances. What distinguishes the narrowly referenced faith of a servant and the faith of the child of God is that those with the latter have an assurance that those with the former do not.1
Wesley’s distinction between the different types of faith reflect both the early Protestant emphasis on justification and Wesley’s own experience at Aldersgate, where justification and the knowledge of justification is the dividing line between believers. On the one hand, justification by faith was a central theological motto of early Protestantism, so it is only natural that faith be defined in relationship to justification. Secondly, Wesley’s own assurance of faith at Aldersgate would put him firmly as one who had the faith of the child of God.
Without further expanding upon Wesley’s understanding of faith, there is a certain insight in Wesley’s distinction between different types of faith. If we read Romans 8.14-17 and Galatians 4.6-7, Paul describes an assurance that Christians have because of the Spirit who has been poured out upon them. Furthermore, there is the evidence of Christians who share all the signs of genuine life lived in Christ and yet they struggle with assurance for various reasons. By coordinating the Pauline understanding of assurance, justification by faith, and the experience of various believers, Wesley’s distinction between the faith of a servant and the faith of a child of God provides a synthetic theological construct to explain and understanding the nature of Christian faith.
However, from an exegetical angle, Wesley’s distinctions is a bit artificial. Romans 8.14-17 and Galatians 4.6-7 do not specifically address faith, but rather the outpouring of the Spirit in the hearts of believers. While certainly associated with faith, this doctrine of ‘assurance’ is not connected to a knowledge of one’s own forgiveness of sins. Rather, in both passages, there is an overriding moral concern that being children of God pertains to. In Romans 8.12-13, the concern is being people who put to death the deeds of the flesh, which Paul will later restate in Romans 12.1-2 as part of the way of life that ceases to live in conformity to the world. Being a child of God is about a specific moral assurance that one can continue in faith to the point of suffering with Jesus.
Whereas for the Galatians, there have been some teachers that have suggested that they needed to obey “works of Torah” in order to be righteous. However, for Paul in Galatians 3.1-5, the Spirit who the Galatians received and started working in them is also (implicitly) the one who will bring them to completion (ἐπιτελεῖσθε). Paul later goes on to say in Gal 5.5-6:
through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
The consistent theme here is that the hope of achieving a particular way of life in the future in grounded in the work of the Spirit in conjunction with faith. Thus, to be a children of God through the Spirit is to recognize that one already has what one needs to live as God is calling believers to live.
While this can certainly be consider thematically related to justification, if we understand justification as God’s creative word over us, recognizing our future life with God even as we are yet sinners, Paul’s discussion on the Spirit and crying out that God is one’s Father is not about assurance of forgiveness, per se, but assurance about our access to God who leads and guides us to resist the ways of the world and to not need to be depend upon other resources to enable a Christian maturity. Certainly, we can suggest the two go hand in hand, but they are distinct exegetically and theologically.
Nevertheless, I would put forward the idea there are two modes of faith a useful insight from Wesley for making sense of two phrases that occurs in the first three chapters of the Gospel of John: (1) believing in Jesus (πιστεύω ἐν αὐτῷ) and (2) believing in Jesus’ name (πιστεύω εἰς τό ὄνομα αὐτοῦ). While it is customary to often treat these two phrases as synonymous with each other, there are reasons to suggest that they take on distinct significane in the Gospel of John.
Regarding the latter phrase (πιστεύω εἰς τό ὄνομα αὐτοῦ), Craig Keener suggests τό ὄνομα is an allusion to the God’s divine name.2 F. Dale Bruner thinks it refers to the person of Jesus.3 D.A. Carson things similarily, giving it an expression that describes a person’s character or the person.4
While Keener’s suggestion is possible on theological grounds, given the theological weighty prologue that intertwines Jesus with God (1.1-18) in which the phrase first occurs (1.12), it’s use the narratives is rather ambiguous. John 2.23 does not intimate that the people believed in Jesus’s name understood it in reference to the divine identity. John 3.18 seems like it could, but that Jesus is referred to as the Son of God there suggests that, strictly speaking, the divine identity is not explicitly in view but rather something unique to the person of Jesus. Bruner’s and Carson’s suggestion doesn’t fit well with John 2.23. The phrase θεωροῦντες αὐτοῦ τὰ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίει (“seeing his signs which he was doing”) suggests a causal explanation for believing in Jesus in virtue of the present participle. As the emphasis here is on Jesus action’s in performing signs, the focus would be more so focus on what Jesus was capable of, rather than simply on Jesus as a ‘person.’ Rather, it seems better to suggest τό ὄνομα refers to Jesus reputation based upon his performance, which is the fourth definition that BDAG mentions. This can certainly explain the description of Jesus as the Son of God in 3.18, as the identity would convey implicit information in the discourse about the power that Jesus bore.
If πιστεύω εἰς τό ὄνομα αὐτοῦ pertains to believing in Jesus’ reputation, then we then have a good reason for understanding why John 2.23-25 then transitions into the story of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3.1-15. Keener understands John 2.23-25 to be a warning about “untrustworthy believers,” whereas “Nicodemus professes a measure of faith in Jesus based on his signs, but has not yet crossed the threshold into discipleship,” but will as the narrative progress.5 Keener seems to imply that Nicodemus is understood as somehow distinguished from the untrustworthy believers. However, it seems that Nicodemus is better understood as an example of those who believer in Jesus’ name in 2.23-25. As the people at the Passover festival believed based upon the signs, so too does Nicodemus express a belief that Jesus is a teacher sent by God because of the signs Jesus did. Furthermore, just as Jesus does not entrust himself to those who believed in His name at the Passover festival, Jesus does not disclose teaching about heavenly matters to Nicodemus. In addition, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born above in 3.3-8, whereas John 1.12 speaks of those who believe in Jesus’ name as having the authority (ἐξουσίαν) to become God’s children. It seems best to suggest that the Gospel of John was written with the idea that Nicodemus is an example of someone who believes in Jesus’ name based upon Jesus’ deeds.
If this is the case, then those who believe in Jesus’s name may be considered to be people who operate on the threshold of becoming a disciple of Jesus. It isn’t quite believing Jesus quite yet, but it is the point where people have the opportunity/authority to move towards become God’s children because they recognize the works of God’s Son, even if they don’t recognize Him as that quite yet. We see this idea of believing in Jesus’ works come up against in John 10.37-38, where believing Jesus’ works is explicitly distinguished with believing Jesus about His identity as God’s Son. There, it is spoken of as if it an option one might take if one has not yet recognized Jesus as God’s Son, as it may be able to lead them to the recognition that the share union between Jesus and the Father.
By contrast, in John 1.43-41, we have in the person of Nathaniel someone who, upon hearing that Jesus knows where Nathaniel was prior, immediately recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel. Jesus then describes him as believing and tells him that Nathaniel will see greater things, including the angelic glorification of Jesus. In other words, Jesus has established a teacher-disciple relationship with Nathaniel that He is going to entrust more about Himself, contrasted with the way Jesus does not entrust himself to those who simply believe in his name.
Something distinguishes Nathaniel from those at the Passover festival: their moral character. Nathaniel is a person of integrity (1.47), whereas Jesus did not entrust Himself to those as the passover festival because He knew what was in them (2.24-25). This is consistent with John 3.18-21, where those who believe in Jesus are not condemned because they are the type who do what is true. By contrast, those who actively reject Jesus6 are condemned because they have not reached the transitional, liminal state of believing Jesus’ name. In other words, those who do evil are not even willing to recognize the great signs and wonders and what this begins to say about Jesus. This suggests that those who believe in Jesus name are not considered evil, but nor are they like Nathaniel, but their character operates in the threshold. We might refer to these people as “decent people” who do not actively seek to harm any others and even try to do some good for others, maybe much like the “Almost Christian” in John Wesley sermon, but are not yet those who Jesus’ brings into discipleship.
In other words, the first three chapters of the Gospel of John seem to narratively portray to distinct modes of faith. There are people like Nicodemus who believe in Jesus’ reputation but are not yet brought into a teacher-disciple relationship. These people are at a point where they have the capacity/authority to make the transition into being a children of God, but things lurk within them that simply hold them back. While repentance is not a prominent theme in the Gospel of John, it is in the synoptic Gospels, and it is perhaps those who believe in Jesus’ name are people who are in need of repentance and taking the public teachings of Jesus seriously. However, they may at some point become like Nathaniel, who, for whatever reason, are people who believe not simply in Jesus’ reputation, but actively recognize Jesus as the one sent from God. Jesus entrust Himself to these people in a way He does not to those who believed in Jesus’ reputation, and so they become embedded in a teacher-disciple relationship with Jesus where their learning grows beyond the earthly and the visible signs of Jesus.
I present to suggest that there seems to be understood within the Gospel of John that there is a development of faith. In a similar manner, we can suggest this in the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4, where people first come to faith in God’s power, analogous to faith in Jesus’ reputation, but then there is a point of deepening where those who love God receive God’s wisdom, much like those in believe in Jesus are entrusted deeper understanding. However, in order to be able to receive that wisdom, their lives must not be lived according to the competitive conventions of the time.
To be clear, this distinction is not the basis for some sort of gnostic esotericism, where there is a different class of special teachings that those who are only beginners in faith are walled off from. Rather, the relationship between the two modes of faith seems to be much more akin to moving from recognition to comprehension. In the Gospel of John, those who believed in Jesus’ name don’t yet comprehend who Jesus really is, even as they recognize there is something about Him. However, those who believe in Jesus recognize Him as the Son of God. Similarily, in 1 Corinthians, those who believe in God’s power don’t yet fully understand the nature of God’s power in the crucified Jesus, but those who understand God’s wisdom comprehend the fullest significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The comprehension of the mature is about a greater understanding about what one has already recognized.
To give an analogy of this movement from recognition to comprehension in the more familiar rhythyms of life, consider the example of a woman and a man who are romantically attracted to one another but are not yet aware of these feelings for each other. They can not see each other’s feelings of attraction, but they can recognize the way positive responses they recieved from each other. As the smiles, the mild flirting, the time spent near each other begins to add up, one or the other or both may begin to recognize that the other person seems to treat them with warmth and admiration, but they don’t necessarily comprehend that the other person is romantically attracted to them. However, there may come a point where one person may come to comprehend what they are recognizing in the other person: a hope for a romantic relationship.
Now, this analogy importantly differs from degrees of faith as the comprehension about Jesus pertains to Jesus’ identity as the one from God rather than comprehension of another person’s intentions and hopes, but nevertheless, the relationship and distinction between recognition and comprehension holds between the two.
Now, while I wouldn’t call believing in Jesus as in the Gopsel of John and recieving wisdom rooted in the love of God in 1 Corinthians 2 the “second half of the Gospel,” I do think there is a basis here for comprehending how it is those people come and growth in faith, from perhaps starting to believe in the reputation of Jesus, even that Jesus with the *reputation* for being son of God, God in the flesh, the second person of the Holy Trinity, etc. However, at some point along the way, this initial faith in the truth conjoined with repentance leading to holiness guides people into the deeper comprehension of Christian faith, where they comprehend Jesus for who He is and not simply recognizng the reputation He has.
- Kenneth Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 134-135.
- Craig Keener, The Gospel of John. Vol 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 399.
- Frederick Dale Bruner, PNTC. The Gospel of John. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 29.
- D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. PNTC. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), EPUB Edition, The Prologue, 12-13.
- Keener, The Gospel of John, 530-533.
- ὁ μὴ πιστεύων should probably not be understood as every person who does not believe in Jesus, but rather, those who actively reject Jesus.